James Robertson’s third novel is his first set exclusively within times he has himself lived through. Since I lived through them too and in the same places, maybe it’s because they’re so familiar (I’d testify also to accurate) that I find the scene-setting chronicle material of earlier chapters rather drawn out. Regardless of that: for the book’s sake, it’s worth saying that everything, including the writing, gets better as it goes.
The central narrative is the supposed autobiography of the Reverend Gideon Mack. Mack’s early artless worthy prose is much like that of the prologue’s fictional author, a fictitious publisher who says he’s putting Mack’s memoirs before the public because they’re important. Given the current confederacy of academic aesthetic formalism and intellectual dumbing-down in the Scottish literary milieu, it’s refreshing to encounter claims to importance beyond a work’s being “a good read.”
The name of the author of the prologue is Patrick Walker, and circa 1730 an earlier Patrick Walker (fl. c.1666-1745) published what’s been called a Lives of Presbyterian Saints: narratives and documents of legalistic-minded Protestant divines given to doctrinal hair-splitting like that of the German puritan pedant who vanishes up a chimney (and good riddance!) in Stefan Heym’s novel The Wandering Jew. Heym was trying to dramatize a postwar German liberal humanism of a sort Thomas Mann willed. Robertson seems dissatisfied with that sort of thing, like Peter Shaffer in Equus, or in Scotland, at a deeper intellectual level, the philosopher Adam Ferguson.
If Robertson’s or Mack’s early wordiness maybe follows Sir Walter Scott, without that literary charm of the virtuoso Scott’s prose has, the novel’s core deliberately parallels the undoubted masterpiece of Scott’s contemporary James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It too was the fictional autobiography of a soul in a unique religious predicament, but Robertson doesn’t come near to matching Hogg’s concision except after the efforts at contemporary chronicling, in the imaginative sections of the book, or where the events are farthest from anything most people would like to have lived through.
Also, where the events of Hogg’s novel dated to the early 18th century, about a hundred years before the book was completed, Robertson’s reference is more recent; and he wants to ground the strange tale in his book, and presumably establish its relevance, with a lot of recent historical chronicling. The chronicling is I think overdone, the landmarks specifying dates and political events seem even to connive at a pact with Scottish readers, not merely in knowing what happened when, but in the assumption of a consensus of interpretation. Since some of the more public statements of current Scottish academic critics show signs of having taken in others’ washing without noticing that it isn’t clean, the consensus aspect isn’t beyond being questioned.
How far is there an over-reliance on the familiarity of readers in other respects too? I’ve read Hogg’s masterpiece a few times and it’s clear that in the prologue and the fictional autobiography Mack’s finals days are set out as parallel to those of Hogg’s damned protagonist. This could be Hoggian, in fact I think it is: the issue is not of postmodernist intertextuality, but of the relations of each text to an actual reality. This book is intended to be about something, it’s not sheerly a play of language. So I do also recall press reports of human remains being found on Scottish mountains, bones of one walker whose status as missing hadn’t been duly recognized round the time of his accident; and bones of one suicide. Mack had been in the news, and then he was out of the news, a general theme of the still recent and very distinguished The Missing of another Scot, Andrew O’Hagan. There was a possibility that becoming apparently no longer newsworthy Mack might have disappeared (like, died). It was amazing that he had left a bigger story, meaning not just the autobiographical memoir that turned up.
Gideon Mack, whose memoir glosses his forename’s biblical reference, was the late-born son of a Protestant clergyman on the model of the earlier Walker’s heroes. Mack Sr. wasn’t an archaism but a minority case. There were some but not many clergy in the Church of Scotland (to which Mack Sr. belongs, rather than the fissiparous so-called Free Kirk, which split after one very prominent member—Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom—in line with duties of his post, likely not against personal inclinations, attended a Roman Catholic funeral).
Mack Sr. was a special case, and this raises problems in respect of Robertson’s apparent desire to offer the chronicle section of Mack Jr.‘s fictional autobiography as a conspectus of Scottish spiritual history during the 20th century. The result would be caricature anyway, if Robertson hadn’t fallen into bad habits which amounted to de-characterization of at least Daddy Mack. Who is for too long and too wholly a stock caricature. He emerges only later as an individual, after Gideon has come home with his fiancée. It’s probably fair enough that Gideon’s mother in widowhood reflects that her joyless marriage was no more and no less than she expected, or would have asked for, but there are predictables, and a telescoping of history amounting to distortion. Of course some of that would be covered by that fact that it is after all Gideon who’s speaking, or writing. It’s still a bit much, and would Gideon really put in all those pointers to recent history? Perhaps?
The immediate occasion of interest in Gideon is his having followed his father into the ministry of the Church of Scotland, after a period as a student in Edinburgh, which might have been expected, would have ruled that out.
Before university, the schoolboy Gideon had read widely and deeply his father’s prescribed canon, making use of public library facilities which seem already to have become history. Once polymathic liberal clergy did good work on municipal library committees, and now old men are pleased at their command of the Internet among schoolboys and newer and fewer books.
Four years at university and Gideon has a degree in English Literature, secured atheist convictions—theological doctrines seem to him so much mumbo jumbo—and thoughts of a teaching career. His father would have liked him to follow him into the church, and now that Robertson’s into the proper business of characterization the reader can speculate about Gideon’s other motives. Or perhaps Robertson has known clergy of Gideon’s generation whose views were like Gideon’s: who could equally have supposed they could function perfectly efficiently as clergy, win money for charity by running sponsored marathons, as well as perform the social work and therapeutic work of the post: reciting orthodoxies as a matter of course.
However reliable or otherwise Gideon might be as a narrator, as in the early caricatures of his father and perhaps of his dealings with his father, not all statements he makes are on his own cognizance. Besides what he says of his domestic life, there’s enough in the novel to verify statements about his public performance as a liberal clergyman. Only a pedantic a doctrinaire traditionalist official of his church is critical, in contexts the Scottish churchman Ian Henderson called ‘coronary-producing’. Why’s this ecclesiastical conservative called Peter Macmurray? Saint Peter? Peter Macmurray is however miles away from the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray. The name of the village whose pastor Gideon was, before and during the strange events at the novel’s heart, isn’t implausible. There’s an actual Monymusk, for whose ancient etymology cf. placename scholarship. Monymaskit can be rendered in a standard English or American dialect as many-masked.
As for Gideon’s private life, did his fiancée really declare that she would support him as a minister’s wife, and fully aware of his actual convictions? More at issue if his account of a period of marital tension (the grass-widowhood of the wife whose husband runs marathons for charity) and its resolution. Perhaps it’s self-deception? True or not, that story capably underlines Gideon’s self-engrossment. His report of his wife’s death in a car crash is public, checkable; that of a single reactive adultery with her best friend isn’t. The consequent apparent revelation that he’d married his wife as second-best to this woman has struck a couple of reviewers as some sign of falseness or inauthenticity (ouch!) in Gideon, but if you’re 20 and haven’t yet realized you love the girl and she accepts your best friend’s proposal of marriage? It’s probably more to the point that Gideon wasn’t essentially duplicitous. This is the bit of the novel where everything’s functioning well, and it makes more sense to see Gideon as a ‘poor image of us all’.
The novel’s funny business (not comedy, Gideon’s memoir has no comedy) begins with Gideon’s apparent discovery of a prehistoric monolith where nobody had ever seen one before: not exactly in a forest, but not where it seems at all likely to have been missed, especially by the author of the comprehensive scholarly guide to such old stones in the neighborhood, a retired local schoolmarm.
She has the sort of reputation half-wits foster regarding local people who’re a bit different: intellectuals, perhaps. Gideon visits her, and finds her not at all the walking stereotype. Not just because she’s crippled by arthritis and thus unable to go see, or not see, the mysterious stone for herself. And she’s not the militant atheist of local legend suggests, she just rejects official church religion. She has traveled, and literate in anthropology she probably she has more feeling for religion than Gideon. He has a certain half-educatedness not at all uncommon.
The nearest we get to satire is the account of a conceptual artist who has been commissioned to concoct a pageant of the neighborhood’s history and prehistory. What’s to be made of Gideon’s assertion that the novel’s Wise Woman—the more intelligent stereotype to which the crippled ex-teacher conforms—would have nothing to do with that artist, and the artist’s claim reported in the postlude that she’d in fact helped him a lot with his trendy project?
Fairly accurate, hardly overdrawn, outwith the experience of some reviewers, is Lorna Sprott, dog-loving young lady pastor of an adjacent parish, She has no notion that Gideon doesn’t share her simple evangelical convictions, until pretty well the end of Gideon’s tale. Very sympathetic following his wife’s death, Lorna seems quite genuinely innocent in no more than hoping that maybe the Lord could bless her by eventually making her Lorna Mack. Strolling with Lorna, Gideon the widower has his big physical adventure. Lorna has seen her dog disappear down the side of a gully through which a smoky cataract rushes. The cataract funnels into a pothole of a nasty sort which like other geographical features keeps the Devil on the map of Scotland. At great personal risk, not a bad chap really. Gideon goes down after the beast, rescues it, and then falls from sight.
Three days later his body is found in the pool into which the waters of the cataract debouch on the far side of the rock-mass from the pothole. He’s alive but not well, and beside the three days’ Jesus’ allusion his mysterious leg wound and limp might suggest Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel. Robertson has apparently a healthy interest in reinterpreting such old stories.
The book pivots around Gideon’s spiritual adventure, recovered from what people had tended to think had killed him—deliberately or otherwise, the novel underplays the fair prospect that a young fit man with a history of endurance trials, running marathons, might have survived three days’ exposure: been swept into a cave, crawled out of a slowed stream, and finally lowered himself back into the current, with a faint hope of being carried out as the alternative to trapped shivering and certain death. When Gideon has an account of what happened during these three apparently lost days, the question is whether he has a memory of very strange events, or falls into a fabulization which by going beyond the precise physical details of what happened nonetheless includes all his experience of that time as no other account would seem to.
Since blurb and other material mention an encounter with the Devil, it gives little away to speak of his being rescued, kept warm, and informed by dialogue with such a being, and by other experience, of a spiritual reality beyond what he suspected. Gideon’s Devil has parallels in the Mephistopheles of Valery’s Mon Faust, and indeed the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film Bedazzled, the latter perhaps with some inspiration from a discussion within the Church of England at the time, and much ridiculed, about whether to continue talking about him. Not shy of allusions, Robertson elaborates his novel’s devilology by identifying him of Gideon’s acquaintance with the Gil-Martin of Hogg’s masterpiece. The same being apparently presented Gideon’s father, whom he had known in the past, with the copy Gideon found in his father’s library, and retained, of the account of account of native Scottish supernatural creatures, published by Robert Kirk’s some centuries back, a work sometimes claimed not only authoritative but written on a basis of personal encounter: the end of Kirk’s earthly life has been said to be unknown. He was taken away by the people he had written about.
How far is Robertson in command of his complex material? Is it worth trying to work that out? The material in question isn’t simply the supernatural material, but also the characterization of individuals and of Monymaskit and indeed the publisher Robert Walker, in a book which definitely does come into focus in other respects the more it moves from the initial chronicle into degrees of fantasy. The funeral of the Wise Woman (as Robertson doesn’t call her, although the archetype’s blatant) really strikes a discordant note in relation to the earlier chronicling. I prefer the funeral. Gideon’s public confession? The journalist who is Patrick Walker the publisher’s research assistant, and his revelations or at least reports of claims challenging Gideon’s testimony as regards indeed earthy events?
This novel’s ambitions rendered inevitable various faults and excesses. Yet, as Andrew O’Hagan has been wont to ask at readings, how much does anybody remember getting from polished flawless works of literary art? Something of Samson, maybe, in the outcast Gideon at the end being long-haired (like all other Monymaskit bodies the village barber shuns him)? Forget that, this novel winds up having been overambitious in a good way.
[Editor’s note: This review refers to the UK edition of this book, released November 2006.]